WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling Thursday, said a federal district court "exceeded its authority" in enjoining a West Virginia court from considering a plaintiffs' class certification request.
Bayer Corp. had moved in federal district court for an injunction ordering a West Virginia court not to consider a motion for class certification filed by the petitioners, Keith Smith et al., who were also plaintiffs in the state court action.
Bayer thought the injunction was warranted because, in another case, it had persuaded the same federal district court to deny a similar class certification motion that was filed against the company by a different plaintiff, George McCollins.
In August 2001, McCollins had sued Bayer in Cabell County Circuit Court, asserting various state law claims arising from the company's sale of an allegedly hazardous prescription drug called Baycol. The drug, which Bayer withdrew from the market that same month, blocks the production of cholesterol in the body.
McCollins contended that Bayer had violated West Virginia's consumer protection statute and the company's express and implied warranties by selling him a defective product.
McCollins then asked the state court to certify a class of West Virginia residents who had also purchased Baycol, so that the case could proceed as a class action.
About a month later, the lawsuit at issue began in a different part of the state. Smith and Shirley Sperlazza filed state law claims against Bayer, similar to those raised in McCollins suit, in Brooke County Circuit Court.
Like McCollins, Smith asked the court to certify a class of Baycol purchasers residing in the state. Neither Smith nor McCollins knew about the other's suit.
The federal district court granted Bayer's requested injunction against the state court proceedings, holding that its denial of certification in the McCollins' case precluded litigation of the certification issue in Smith's case. The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.
The appeals court noted that the Anti-Injunction Act generally prohibits federal courts from enjoining state court proceedings.
Under the act, a federal court "may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a State court except" in rare cases, when necessary to "protect or effectuate (the federal court's) judgments."
However, it found that the act's relitigation exception authorized the injunction because ordinary rules of issue preclusion barred Smith from seeking certification of his proposed class.
In so doing, the court concluded that Smith was invoking a state rule, W.Va. Rule Civ. Proc. 23, that was sufficiently similar to the federal rule McCollins had invoked, such that the certification issues presented in the two cases were the same. The court further held that Smith, as an unnamed member of McCollins' putative class action, could be bound by the judgment in the McCollins case.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted review of the Smith case. Justice Elena Kagan authored the Court's 18-page opinion.
In it, the Court reversed the appeals court's decision.
The Anti-Injunction Act, it said, prohibits the order the district court entered. The act's relitigation exception authorizes injunctions only when a former federal adjudication clearly precludes a state court decision.
"As we said more than 40 years ago, and have consistently maintained since that time, "(a)ny doubts... should be resolved in favor of permitting the state courts to proceed," the Court wrote.
"Close" cases have easy answers, it said. That is, the federal court should not issue an injunction and the state court should decide the preclusion question.
"But this case does not even strike us as close," the Court concluded.
"The issues in the federal and state lawsuits differed because the relevant legal standards differed. And the mere proposal of a class in the federal action could not bind persons who were not parties there."
The Court's ruling now means the case can move forward.
Rick Monahan of The Masters Law Firm LC, in Charleston, W.Va., argued on behalf of the West Virginia plaintiffs. Monahan said Monday that he was "very pleased" with the Court's decision.
"We believe it's an important case not just for West Virginia consumers, but all consumers nationwide," he said.
One of the primary purposes of a class action, Monahan explained, is to help people with small economic damages claims. In fact, it is one of the only ways, he said.
In this case, the plaintiffs were fortunate to have the nation's highest court accept their writ of certiorari.
"We were very blessed to have them grant it," Monahan said. "They probably get between 8,000 and 10,000 requests a year and only take 60 to 90, so your chances of getting in are very slim."
He said the Court's ruling has far-reaching implications.
"People should have their own day in court," he explained. "Is it fair for West Virginia citizens to be bound by a decision of a court in Minnesota? No. The same goes for Minnesota citizens in a West Virginia court. This can be applied to all states.
"This really levels the economic playing field."
Monahan said the plaintiffs plan to request a hearing before the Brooke Circuit Court. At that point, the court will then decide whether to certify, he said.